Historical Dictionary



The provisional French government led by Charles de Gaulle formally announced its plans to create an Indochinese Federation in the Declaration on Indochina of 23 March 1945, some two weeks after the Japanese coup de force of 9 March 1945 had brought down French Indochina. During the Brazzaville Conference in 1944, de Gaulle’s colonial specialists had agreed that a French Union predicated on colonial federalism, especially in Indochina, would announce the implementation of a liberal French colonial policy. Federalism would allow the French to allay American critiques of French colonial policy and neutralize nationalist sentiment in the Empire let loose by World War II and France’s defeat in 1940. But federalism was not an association or a commonwealth allowing for the emergence of independent nation-states. As one of the main architects of the Federation, Léon Pignon, put it: “the ultimate aim of our policy is nonetheless and above all to keep Indochina French”.

According to this French plan, Indochina would be transformed into a colonial Federation composed of five territories: Tonkin, Annam, Cochinchina, Laos, and Cambodia. An Indochinese Assembly would be elected to write legislation, giving deputies the right to vote on taxes and the budget. Indochinese and French Union citizenship would be bestowed upon the non-French inhabitants of the new colonial state and freedom of the press, of religion, and of association would be accorded and workers rights respected. The French planned to industrialize eastern Indochina in light of growing demographic problems. In exchange, the French expected to stay at the helm. The Federation’s ministers and upper house would be subordinate to a French governor general, appointed by the French government. France would represent Indochina diplomatically and the federation’s armed forces would fall under French supervision as part of those of the wider French Union.

The problem was that events in Indochina had already outpaced the 23 March declaration in which the French officially announced their vision of the Indochinese Federation. The Japanese had just brought down colonial Indochina and had granted the local states an independence as hollow as it might have been in practice. The Viet Minh was thinking in terms of national independence and no longer colonial reform. Worse, the Indochinese Federation was based upon a pentagonal structure, one which divided the national idea of Vietnam into three continued colonial parts, stirring the nationalist ire of the majority of communists and non-communists alike. Indeed, the French designed the Federation in part to check Vietnamese domination of it and to counteract Vietnamese nationalism.

Upon arriving in Indochina in 1945, the French High Commissioner Georges Thierry d’Argen-lieu followed Charles de Gaulle’s instructions to the letter by retaking the lost colony piece by piece in order to recast it in the federal form. On 1 June 1946, he countered the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s (DRV) attempts to reunify Cochinchina with the rest of Vietnam by announcing the creation of a separate Cochinchinese “free state” (état libre).

The DRV leadership was not necessarily opposed to the idea of joining the Federation, as Ho Chi Minh’s signing of the Accords of 6 March 1946 made clear. However, the Vietnamese were determined to realize the unification of Vietnam and ensure its eventual independence. The Indochinese Federation thus meant different things to the French and the Vietnamese. As Ho Chi Minh put it, his government would agree to take part in a Federation of a mainly economic nature, “but was determined to block the re-emergence of the prewar governor general in the disguise of the Federation”. To an increasing number of Vietnamese nationalists, French colonialism, federal or not, could not continue indefinitely. Vietnamese nationalists, and not just the communists, claimed the right to rule themselves. See also INDOCHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY; VIETNAMESE NATIONALIST PARTY.